Almost every week, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, meet with statehouse reporters for about 45 minutes on Thursdays. Chopp at 2 p.m.; Brown, in a separate meeting, at 3:30 p.m.
This week, Chopp was mildly complaining that we in the Press Corps have not given House Democrats enough credit for what they’ve accomplished so far this session. And I respectfully disagreed. We have given them way too much credit. In fact, in hindsight, I can’t believe how much “ink” they got for doing so little on the budget front. They passed a couple bills that cut state spending by about $300 million and spend about $330 million of federal money (instead of state money) from the economic stimulus money they’re getting from Congress.
That doesn’t address even 1/10th of the $8 billion budget deficit they are facing. And Monday will be Day 50, almost halfway through the scheduled 105-day session. (Yes, it may run longer, Chopp’s protestations notwithstanding.)
More noteworthy, the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate told state agencies, basically, to ignore the cuts that Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in her budget in mid-December and keep on spending money in many areas.
By my count they’ve done 3 substantive things that address our deepening recession, so far:
1. The spending cuts (small as they are) and hiring freeze (porous as it is).
2. Boosting minumum unemployment benefits from $129 to $200 a week, and by $45 a week for everyone else. (Although they might take back $14 of that amount before the higher benefits take effect May 3.)
3. Next week, they will pass the $341 million transportation stimulus bill, aka, “the summer paving program.” (I’m future tripping here, but let’s give them credit for that one, if for no other reason than “3” things looks better than “2” things.)
I’d love to be able to tell you that Democratic leaders are showing all kinds of leadership, but we’ll have to take their word for it. Because if they are, it’s all behind the scenes. And they won’t give us a glimpse.
Chopp told us Thursday that next week, he will share with us the timetable for when Democrats will show us what they’re doing. At least then, we’ll know for how much longer we won’t really know what they’re doing. Great. That’s progress, I guess.
The plan basically is not to let anyone see their 2007-09 supplemental budget or their 2009-11 budget until late March, after the official revenue forecast and caseload forecast. That will be about Day 75.
Brown is annoyed with the Press Corps because we keep asking questions about taxes — when? how much? which taxes? how will the money be spent? Those are pesky question. And they are the wrong questions, and, consequently, we reporters are writing the wrong kinds of stories, in Brown’s judgment.
She wants us to focus on the people on whom the state would spend money, not the people from whom they would take money.
So, we should be writing stories about the student who will have to spend 8 years attending college instead of 7 years because he couldn’t get the classes he needed because of faculty layoffs. Or how the homeless drug addict is still homeless because he can’t get into treatment for the third time because the ADATSA treatment program was cut. (OK, these are absurd examples. The more sympathetic examples that I’m suppose to write are about how Johnny can’t graduate on time because he can’t get the core classes he needs. And how Johnny can’t get into desperately needed drug rehab so he can kick his heroin habit, get a job and support his children because there are so few state-paid treatment slots. But you get the idea.)
See, Brown considers the Press Corps merely an extension of the Senate Democratic propaganda machine. If we aren’t with them, then we’re against them. There is no middle ground.
Now, I probably would write some of those stories but for one thing: They haven’t happened yet. And they aren’t going to happen until or unless the state actually cuts spending on those programs. What we have right now are lots and lots of folks predicting what will happen IF their particular program is cut. And Brown wants us to write those the-sky-is-falling stories.
We in the Press Corps are supposed to soften you up. You voters. We’re supposed to write stories about how bad things are going to get if you, the voters, don’t agree to approve whatever tax package they put before you.
Lisa Brown is frustrated by our pesky questions about taxes. She took National Public Radio reporter Austin Jenkins to task in her blog because he seemed skeptical that she might not be forthcoming about formulating a tax package for the ballot. She wants us to believe her when she says, “I don’t know yet.”
Personally, I don’t mind reporting that Monday will be Day 50, and that Brown still doesn’t know yet.
I’d love to be able to tell readers of The News Tribune how much progress is being made by the Legislature in its efforts to tackle an $8 billion budget shortfall. But it’s all still secret. And legislators think that’s OK.